Ever since the first century when the Didache was written, the Eucharist has been referred to as a “sacrifice” among orthodox Christian circles. The belief was that a church’s elder/overseer acted as a priest who re-presented the body and blood of Christ via bread and wine. Due to the bread and wine really being Jesus Christ’s sacrificed body and blood, the belief was that the Eucharist was in effect also a memorial sacrifice.
Since the Protestant Reformation, it has become popular for sectarians to deny that the Eucharist is a “sacrifice.” Nevertheless, Protestants were not the first sect to deny that the Eucharist was a sacrifice, as Saint Ignatius writes in his letter to the Smyrnaeans:
They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead (Par 6).
Most scholars speculate that the “they” were Gnostics called Docetists, who doubted that Jesus Christ had a physical body. They reasoned that He could not really be made to appear in bread and wine because Jesus was purely spiritual.
The Gnostics, however, were not a cogent and unified group of people. There were various Gnostic sects with different beliefs–the sole unifying factor being a belief in a cosmology which hinged upon the Pleroma–a sort of polytheistic Godhead. So, this article does not address how all Gnostics viewed the Eucharist or their Christology. Rather, it addresses how the in the second century the Gnonstic writer of the Gospel of Judas viewed the Eucharist.
A translation of the Gospel of Judas is available here. Dr. David Brakke, the translator of the preceding, in “Judas as a Gnostic Tragic Hero” asserts that Jesus is criticizing the Apostles for worshiping the Demiurge (Jehovah, the false “Old Testament” god of the universe) through Eucharistic sacrifices. Is this true?
[The 12 disciples said:] “And the men who stand [beside] the altar invoke your (Jesus’) [name]. And because they are engaged in all the labors of their sacrifice, that altar is full.”
Jesus said to them, “Why have you become disturbed? Truly I say to you, all the
priests that stand beside that altar invoke my name. And even more, I say to you that
they have written my name upon the [ . . . ] of the races of the stars through the races of the human beings, and in my name they shamefully have planted fruitless trees.”
Jesus said to them, “It is you who present the sacrifices at that altar that you saw.
That is the god you serve, and you are the twelve men whom you saw. The cattle that are brought in are the sacrifices that you saw, that is, the multitude that you lead astray upon that altar…
For it has been said to the races of the human beings, ‘Look, God has received your sacrifice from the hands of a priest’—that is, the deacon of error. But it is the Lord who commands who is lord over all things. On the last day they will be put to shame.”
Jesus said [to them,] “Stop sacrificing animals, which you have lifted up on
the altar. (38-41).
At first glance, it appears the passage is condemning animal sacrifice.
The passage states that the Apostles are condemned for offering sacrifices in Jesus’ name upon an altar. The result is that they who “planted fruitless trees” and sacrificed “cattle” are leading the masses “astray upon that altar.” A “deacon” is invoked, but this is a mistranslation. The priest is still referenced and he is not really a “deacon of error” but rather a “servant of error.” Deacon merely means “servant” and the rendering “servant” works better.
Later there is another passage that invokes sacrifice:
Tomorrow the one who bears me will be tortured. Truly I [say] to you (pl.), no hand of a mortal human being [will] sin against me. Truly [I] say to you, Judas, those who offer sacrifice to Saklas [ . . . ] god [ . . . ] [About 3 lines are missing here] … you [Judas] will exceed them all, for you will sacrifice the human being who bears me (56).
Saklas is another name for “Jehovah,” the allegedly false God of the Old Testament. The reference to “the one who bears me” is to the human Jesus, hence, the Gospel of Judas is not Docetist but rather Adoptionist. God is not really crucified on the cross. From this passage, we cannot any additional anti-sacerdotal implications from the work.
Conclusion. The “Gospel” has no other references to sacrifices. There is nothing, in my view, which clearly pertains to the Eucharist in the work. Rather, the book appears to be condemning the Apostles for being too Jewish, as they lift up “animals” on the altar.
Perhaps, the condemnation is for the disciples still bringing animals to the Temple sacrifices, but not actually conducting the sacrifices themselves. This is a detail which has a genuine historicity–a detail that is so authentically Jewish that it is surprising from a second century, Gentile source. Perhaps, the writer of the Gospel of Judas was a converted Jewish Christian from Alexandria.
Nevertheless, the “priests” invoke “Jesus” name according to the Gospel. This would likely not occur among the Levites, though perhaps some priests were converted to the Christian cause. This lends credibility to the reading that Christian Eucharistic, and not Jewish animal, sacrifices are in view.
So, though the Gospel is potentially mentioning some small group of Jewish Christians amongst the priesthood in the first century, Bakke appears to view this as a “code” for orthodox Christians and their Eucharistic mystery. After all, a second century source is probably not that concerned with a Jewish sacrificial system and its few Christian adherents from 100 years in the past.
Therefore, the reference to animal sacrifice is more of an insult against orthodox Christians than a literal statement of fact. Those who offer sacrifices in Christ’s name are, in effect, no different than the Jews offering up animals on the altar again and again. They are, in effect, worshiping the elements of this world and are ignoramuses missing the true object of worship–the Pleroma.
So, while the opposition to “sacrifices” in the Gospel of Judas is not explicitly Protestant in its basis, there is a possibility there is a similar parallel at least. That being, they both rejected repeated sacrifices.
While Protestants reject this because Christ was sacrificed once and for all on the cross, some Gnostics would reject this as Jesus Christ was in some way not really sacrificed (i.e. he was not really there at the cross because he as a Docetist phantom or a spirit that left right before a mortal was crucified). Therefore, continual re-presentation or repeated (depending on one’s perspective) sacrifice of Jesus Christ is not possible, because He was never sacrificed to begin with. Thankfully such heresy died away (though it persists in Islam).
Sadly, we still have a similar, though not identical, heresy among Protestants. And, to be honest, all those Orthodox who treat the Eucharist as something common without proper fasting and preparation before communing are similar to Protestants in one respect. They may not explicitly agree with Protestant doctrine, but their attitudes betray that they in effect likewise really do not believe Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist. None of us, if we were really going to meet God, would arrive unprepared. May God bless us with the faith to be authentic in our worship.